I had seen Rangina from time to time in Santa Fe where she traveled to present hand-made goods from Afghanistan, but I had no idea of the rich and complicated story behind her kind face. Not until I read that her group of 500 embroiderers had dwindled to 300 because the US military post closed in Kandahar and her main market disappeared - did I reach out and ask to meet with her. I knew I had to do something to give work to the women there.
And so, a year ago, Rangina sat down with me over tea in my little rented house in New Mexico and began to tell the tale that brought me to my knees.
There I learned that Rangina’s Pashtun family escaped Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and emigrated to the US where she was raised from the age of three with her family’s hopes that she become a doctor. At the University of Virginia, Rangina was galvanized by her courses in Women’s Studies and Religion (here we became sisters), and had a change of heart, cautiously approaching her beloved father about her desire to return to Afghanistan and help women trapped by severe financial hardship and cultural oppression.
Ravaged by 30 years of war, countless women in Afghanistan are widowed and have no source of income or place in society. In a UN study of women’s access to education, overall life expectancy, and and decent standard of living canvased in all regions of the world, Afghanistan rates as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman.
And so Rangina moved to Kandahar and began a women’s embroidery cooperative, based on the precise, refined Khamak embroidery for which this area is known. She never asked the women what their husbands did - whether they were a part of the Taliban or working to oppose it - she simply wanted to help the women, all of whom needed a hand up.
When Rangina’s father saw her efforts take root, he decided that he, too, might join her to help rebuild their country, and so followed her back to Kandahar, entering politics and becoming the mayor of that city. Rangina slowed in the telling. His vision of freedom and progress proved too threatening, she said quietly. In a piercing show of power, her father was executed.
Rangina eyes filled - the reality still devastatingly close. She has stayed. She walks the city streets to work, the only woman without her face covered. She is a target, yes, and yet she walks proudly and with quiet determination. This year, she started a school for girls in Kabul.
Pulling out a bag of shawls made by women in Kandahar as we talked on into the afternoon, I spotted an intricate grid pattern and asked about it. This is what women wear over their eyes, she explained, a see-through shield attached to the burqa made by hand. Later, I showed it to Charlotte Moss, captivated by the story, who said, “Let’s give it some leg”, and quickly imagined a cocktail dress with this border at the hem. And at the cuffs? Add sparkling beads in every open grid to set it off.
All year, women in Kandahar have been at work on the Rangina Dress for Charlotte Moss for Ibu. The woman pictured at the top of this page is Sahjana, working on the hem of this dress. She endured 30 year in an abusive marriage, and at last was granted permission by the the elders of her community to leave her husband because she was earning her own living through Rangina's group. Finally finding happiness living with her oldest son, she supports herself by doing this work for Ibu, her granddaughter by her side.
I love a good veil. There is nothing wrong with mystery. But I love also the choice to lift the veil, to give it some leg, to elevate the women behind it and the choices they can make.
When Rangina pulled away from my house, I felt my chest expand, my heart grow quiet. I felt a sisterhood with this woman and our shared passions. I felt an aching admiration for her brave, uncommon life. She’s putting her life on the line every day, I realized. The least I can do, the very least . . . is to tell this story, to ask you to notice, to bring work and respect and choice to the women in Kandahar. To lift the veil between their world and ours.
All the Best,
Susan Hull Walker